Sunday, 2 August 2015

Satyrs

In modern parlance, a satyr is a man who indulges himself in every physical pleasure, and especially devours women. (In a sexual sense, not as food!)

Which is in essence also what a satyr was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when wealthy people wished to adorn their houses with marble statues in the Ancient Greek style. Among the noble busts of important men, and daring heroes from the Greek Myths - marble athletes spearing serpents and suchlike - would often be found smaller but no less carefully-carved statues of satyrs - a man who was half-goat, whose face (apart from a goat's ears) was human, but in a coarse way: heavy brows, rather slitty eyes, thick lips, a full beard - in every way suggestive of a man in thrall to his senses. And with great strength in reserve, to be used if necessary; for above all, the satyr wanted - needed - to quench his overpowering lusts, and would play rough if he could not with silver speech entrance. Not a creature to be caught alone with, and very dangerous company whether one were male or female. For the satyr was not at all particular about whom he had sex with, so long as he could somehow fascinate his victim sufficiently to melt away all resistance and have his way.

And yet sculptors usually gave him an inner life, a soul if you like, so that he was not simply a mindless lump of flesh but a being who had a certain subtlety, who could speak gently, who could reassure and persuade. Thus there are pieces of statuary at (for instance) Petworth House where the satyr is lying down in the grass with a young man (whom you feel ought to know better), ready to do his stuff at the right moment. I don't think there is anything specifically 'gay' about the situation - the satyr is simply charming another victim, who could be anyone, so long as they are young and beautiful. Take this larger piece, also at Petworth:


The victim here could, I suppose, be (and probably is) yet another youth - satyrs were very often carved with one, because the male-on-male thing heightened his shocking behaviour. But it could be a female follower of Dionysus. Either way, the satyr's attitude is predatory though (for the present moment) gentle; the hand resting lightly on the shoulder, and the facial expression almost wistful. But you know quite well that if the victim does not flee at once, he or she will be seduced - or lustfully raped.

Which begs the question, why were such pieces bought or commissioned by the owner of the grand house? Was the satyr, frozen in marble, acting out some fantasy that the owner harboured in his mind? (And presumably the minds of his male friends and guests too) I find it quite hard to accept that this was simply a salute to Ancient Greek Mythology. Just as I am pretty certain that the High Victorian painters and their rich patrons had something other than Art on their minds when they painted (or ogled) this kind of thing, which I saw in the Russell-Coates Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth:


Or these, at the City Museum and Art Gallery in Bristol, and at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool:


It's easy to imagine the middle-aged or elder patron, doing his daily rounds in spectacles and smoking-jacket, getting a mild frisson in every corridor and on every staircase. And he would call it art. So be it.

Me? Well, I definitely admire the skill needed to create such lifelike statues and paintings. I am wistful at the young girls' bodies, but consoled by the older, fatter ladies, who look so much more like myself. And (despite the pretence that sex had nothing to do with these creations, satyrs included) they are all very pleasing to look at. If some Victorian toff wanted to collect such things, and they are now available for us twenty-first century folk to appreciate, then where's the harm? Indeed, compared to the uncontrolled porn viewable on the Internet, it all looks rather innocent.

I would just like to know what the Lady of the House privately thought about her husband's obsession with Beauty and Form and the rough ways of woodland creatures.

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